Twinkle, Twinkle, Vogel Staar: On Mozart's Feathered Collaborator
July 29, 2016 7:23 AM   Subscribe

If you whistle a tune often enough to a starling, the bird will not only sing it back to you, it will improvise its response and create something new. On May 27, 1784, Mozart whistled a 17 note phrase to a starling in a Viennese shop and to his delight it spat the tune right back — but not without taking some liberties first. So he bought it and brought it home. That bird lived with him for the three most productive years of his life, during which he completed more than 60 compositions, including Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The piano concerto as we still understand it was built in those rooms. The “Jupiter” Symphony began and Figaro ended. Melodies that two centuries of humans have since whistled could have first been volleyed between a genius and his pet bird.
posted by zarq (21 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
Good species copy, GREAT species steal.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:33 AM on July 29, 2016 [14 favorites]

I like the way these fellows improvise on a familiar tune with birdy logic.
posted by Jode at 8:54 AM on July 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

Birds are amazing. I lived with an African Grey for a while and tried to tech him to buck like a chicken. I also would sing silly fake opera. One day, without prompting, he started bucking like an operatic chicken.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:13 AM on July 29, 2016 [18 favorites]

Talk about passing the buck.
posted by teponaztli at 9:20 AM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The article is rich yet succinct. It covers some ground present in my wonderment. They say everything about starlings except electrically connected, a vast sentient charge. Some of my favorite markers in time are bird songs, they bring me back to my self, starting at my earliest childhood. I travel often to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, just to hear the meadowlarks, whose clear notes remain inscribed on my psyche, and always precipitate a rise of childlike joy.

While reading this article I decided to call up birdsong to listen to while I read. (A little distracting, indeed,) but I found this uninterrupted song of a Nightingale by a soft, silken, persistent stream. It is a treasure, that goes on for hours. Here it is to go with your day.
posted by Oyéah at 9:31 AM on July 29, 2016 [10 favorites]

(tiny, gulpy sobs)
posted by kimberussell at 9:38 AM on July 29, 2016

It's not that unusual. I thought the consensus among music historians was that Bach wrote his Toccata and Fugue in D Minor with the assistance of his faithful pet tapir, Dalton.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:01 AM on July 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

They say everything about starlings except electrically connected, a vast sentient charge.

I think there may be a typo in here somewhere. I originally thought that the first paragraph was nonsense generated by some markov chain magic, but the rest of the comment makes sense.

I jumped to the markov chain because I feel it's similar to what Mozart and the bird were doing.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 10:04 AM on July 29, 2016

The little songbird ... added a dramatic fermata at the end of the first full measure;
-otherwise known as a birdseye.
posted by MtDewd at 10:20 AM on July 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

What a good birb!
posted by Hermione Granger at 10:32 AM on July 29, 2016

Beethoven liked to take nature walks (probably vigorous ones). You may hear some birdsong in the 6th 'Pastoral' symphony.

Here's some more on the topic at Science Buddies. Among its links is one to Wikipedia's bird vocalization article, which in turn links to birds in music.
posted by Twang at 10:55 AM on July 29, 2016

Two years ago I had some birds (song sparrows, possibly?) that would wake me up in the morning with the first five bars of Beethoven's 5th symphony. If it was only the first two bars (four notes), I'd have thought it was just a random coincidence. They did a nice long trill at the end.
posted by sfenders at 11:49 AM on July 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

What a wonderful post! (The first link is prohibited on copyright grounds, though. Here's another one: W.A.Mozart Eine kleine Nachtmusik (Complete) Slovak Chamber Orchestra)

Everything about this is wonderful. Mozart, starlings, and the fpp. A great way to finish a Friday afternoon!
posted by Kevin Street at 3:22 PM on July 29, 2016

The first link is prohibited on copyright grounds, though.

Oops! I usually check, but didn't today. The Jupiter Symphony and Kiri Te Kanawa Figaro videos are unrestricted. Sorry about that!!! Thanks for the alternate link! Glad you liked the post! :)
posted by zarq at 3:26 PM on July 29, 2016

*forehead smack*

Bird! Of course! I'm an idiot.

*Throws out unfinished "Rorhn In A Roo Ress Ray" song*
posted by petebest at 3:33 PM on July 29, 2016

I was trying this on a robin the other evening. It perches on the top of an old pole on the opposite side of the alley from my deck, so when I stand at the railing we're about 16 feet apart, eye to eye. In the evening it'll catch a big bug and sit there and sing its lovely songs, somehow with the bug still in its mouth. Perhaps the bug is a kind of bride price for whatever mate that might be in hearing range.
It never seems to have any luck though, so to cheer it up - and ideally, of course, to initiate a deep and lasting friendship with a robin - I tried to reply the other evening, with as bird-like a whistle as I could manage. But the robin just gazed at me for a few seconds, and then very deliberately turned 180 degrees to face in the opposite direction.
posted by Flashman at 4:45 PM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over, lest you should think he never could recapture the first fine careless rapture!
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 7:48 PM on July 29, 2016

I was about to go camping on Magnetic Island with a friend and she warned me that there would be quite a lot of bird noises. I was all 'oh, how lovely!', imagining something like this. Instead, we were surrounded by curlews and peacocks and I thought babies were being massacred nightly. Gave me a whole new perspective.
posted by h00py at 9:54 PM on July 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

"nonsense generated by some markov chain magic"

Starlings in flight have remarkable properties. I was once in a parking lot, just east of I 15 on the flats of the Salt Lake Valley. I was looking east at the mountains, when suddenly three huge black figures appeared in the air, about 2 miles away, a little to the south too. They looked like an enormous dot, X, and dot. They would have had to be two blocks in diameter, each figure. Then they disappeared, entirely, all at once. I stood there, and in a few seconds they reappeared. I called out to someone in the interim to a woman in passing. I said, "Hey look over there in the sky." She looked, nothing there, then the figures reappeared. She gasped. I told her it had taken me three appearances to figure it out, and it is flights of starlings. Then on cue, they vanished. Turning exactly on edge was like a cloak of invisibility. I think they communicate en mass, cod in the sea move like this too. I did not date Markov in high school.
posted by Oyéah at 9:13 AM on July 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, no doubt. Starlings and the red-winged blackbirds, which join up into enormous mixed-species flocks around here during migration time make large deafening clouds that seem to move as one organism.

I was just having difficulty parsing that one sentence, and it threw me on a tangent of thought.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:54 PM on July 31, 2016

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